The mysteries of Pauline Kael

Years after the brilliant film critic's death two new books shed light on some of her puzzling idiosyncrasies

Published October 26, 2011 7:20PM (EDT)

This originally appeared as part of a post on Alex Belth's Bronx Banter.

One of the things I most loved in Brian Kellow’s terrific new biography of Pauline Kael was her open contempt for professors of English and film studies! Although she was very well-read, before and after her college years at Berkeley, she rightly detested pretension and pomposity. It was a revelation to me, thanks to Kellow’s ace research, that Kael (who had been born on a chicken farm in Petaluma) emerged from a bohemian San Francisco milieu suffused with Beat radicalism.

As I told Kellow on a recent panel on Kael at the New York Film Festival, this helped explain for me Kael’s emphatic use of the colloquial American voice—which I have also striven to do in my writing on popular culture. I despise the phony, fancy-pants rhetoric of professors aping jargon-filled European locutions—which have blighted academic film criticism for over 30 years. Kael socialized with poets in San Francisco. On the same panel, film critic David Edelstein called Kael’s writing “jazzy”—which is exactly right. It must be remembered that the Beats were heavily influenced by be-bop and cool jazz. Kael often uses abrupt, surprising syncopations in her writing that I would classify as Beat. I remain stubbornly attached to the Beat movement, which hugely influenced me in college. It’s one reason I ruffled so many feathers (to continue the chicken-farm trope) by my book on poetry, "Break, Blow, Burn," which promoted the Beat style and rejected the cringingly artificial, pseudo-philosophical meanderings of grossly over-praised contemporary poets like John Ashbery.

Browsing through the Library of America’s massive new collection of her writing (called "The Age of Movies"), I was stunned at Kael’s range and power. Her voice, shaped by the American idiom, is still utterly fresh and dynamic. She is a superb role model for young writers. She has a keen eye for crisp detail and a lust for both attack and celebration. This is a perfect moment for the release of the Kellow and Library of America books. Cultural criticism is in the dumps. Nothing important is coming out of academe, and the “serious” general magazines are insular and verbose. Film criticism has waned, and the Web is overrun with gassy, sniggering, solipsistic snark.

As I said at the panel, the two new Kael books struck me with special force because I have just completed over four years of work on a book on the visual arts for Pantheon. In the process of my research, I was horrified by the degeneration of arts criticism in the past four decades. What excited me anew about Kael’s work is that, even though she was writing solely about movies, she was constantly inventing fascinating paradigms and templates for talking about the creative process as well as the audience’s imaginative experience of performance. Because most of my career in the classroom has been at art schools (beginning at Bennington in the 1970s), I am hyper-aware of the often grotesque disconnect between commentary on the arts and the actual practice or production of the arts. Kael had phenomenal intuition and gut instinct about so many things—the inner lives of directors and actors, the tangible world of a given film, the energy of film editing.

I find Kael stimulating and provocative even when I disagree with her. That’s the entire point of good writing!—to force the reader to think independently. For example, I loved the decadent European art films that she mocked—above all, "La Dolce Vita." But her scathing satire of those films was hilarious and persuasive in its own way. I am also very fond of "Rich and Famous," George Cukor’s last film, over which Kael got in big trouble because gay activists thought her review homophobic. Preparing for the panel, I viewed that film again via Netflix and was startled to see that YES, there is indeed a glaring male-hustler moment in there that makes no sense whatever in heterosexual terms. So Kael was right about that. But I can’t understand why she failed to appreciate how well Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen work together as a quarreling comic duo. They are fabulous!

And then there is Kael’s hostility to Alfred Hitchcock, which seems inexplicable in a major film critic—particularly since she was so enthusiastic about Brian De Palma’s "Dressed to Kill," which is a Hitchcock tribute. Because Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors (I wrote a book on "The Birds" for the British Film Institute’s Film Classics Series), I have always been mystified by Kael’s attitude. When I raised this issue at the Film Festival, it led, I think, to a breakthrough. On the panel, director and screenwriter James Toback replied that Kael loved De Palma’s active camera and that she tended not to like static, long-held shots, such as Hitchcock was known for. Eureka! One of the main reasons I am so drawn to Hitchcock is that he planned his shots way in advance on story-boards, which he designed like classic paintings (he was an art connoisseur). It’s why he found shooting on set boring—because he had already composed the film in his head.

Then at the Film Festival dinner afterward, David Edelstein, who like Toback was a close friend of Kael’s, told me in passing how he had often tried to get her to appreciate Mahler and Bruckner, whom she actively disliked. (Kellow describes how her memorial service ended with her favorite Baroque music.) Second eureka of the night! I instantly said to Edelstein that this must be another reason Kael disliked Hitchcock—because of Bernard Herrmann’s lush, insistent, immersive, Mahler-like scores, which I adore and would describe as ecstatic and visionary. Edelstein remarked that, in general, Kael was not interested in the transcendent. This is just one example of the exhilarating train of associations triggered by a daring, opinionated, and sometimes cantankerous writer like Kael. We are in desperate need of original minds and voices like hers!

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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